Sheila O’Connor is the award-winning author of four novels: Keeping Safe the Stars, Sparrow Road, Where No Gods Came and Tokens of Grace. Her poetry and fiction have been recognized with fellowships from the Bush Foundation, Loft McKnight and the Minnesota State Arts Board. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is a professor in the MFA program at Hamline University where she also serves as fiction editor for Water~Stone Review. Keeping Safe the Stars has recently been released in paperback.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I always begin with a character, and from there it is a character in a situation. I’m interested in the character’s trouble—why is their story important? What are they up against and why? That’s the early work I do on a book.
How do you conduct your research?
I like to jump into the story, discover the time period, and then ask myself: What elements of that time period are pressing in on the story? We are all influenced by our historical time and place, and fictional characters are no different. The world we live in shapes us. Once I’ve settled on the time and place of a novel, I immerse myself in it through books, movies, music, and lots of web research.
You do have a specific system for collecting data?
I wish I did. I tend to empty the library of materials, and spend too much time on Google. I call people, I ask questions of people who may have lived during that time. I’m especially interested in talking to people that would have been the same age as my characters in that time period.
What kinds of sources do you use?
Magazine, catalogues, newspapers, books, music, films, photos—anything I can get my hands on. The book I’m working on now has required looking at old baseball cards, Schwinn catalogues, reading obscure articles on psychiatric hospitals in the 1960’s, among other odd activities. I love it all.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I love the way the time period determines certain events in the book, the kinds of choices characters have available to them, the way cultural norms of the time period would influence their decisions. My previous novel, KEEPING SAFE THE STARS, was set in 1974, during the week of the Nixon resignation, and there were all kinds of cultural norms at work during that time that helped me discover the story. Beyond that, I think it’s my own particular kind of fantasy, because I’m able to return to a time that no longer exists, and make it real again—which is a fantasy for me. We know our time and place, but the work of fiction allows us to occupy another, and whether it’s an imaginary country, or a small town in Minnesota in 1974, it’s a fiction world I’ve never inhabited.
Why is historical fiction important?
Historical fiction allows us to see the path behind us, to see how we’ve arrived at this moment, and in some ways it allows us to make sense of the world as we know it now. Beyond that, it can teach us things–both major and minor–things we might not otherwise know. I don’t write books to teach, but historical novels are rich opportunities for readers young and old to learn about another time and place, to imagine what it was like to be living in a reality other than our own.